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Ebertfest Honorees Share Memories of Roger Ebert

Every year industry heavyweights descend on Champaign, Ill., to pay tribute to Roger Ebert’s lasting legacy in the world of film.

Ebertfest, the annual week-long celebration of all things cinematic, was founded by the late Chicago Sun-Times critic and his wife, Chaz, who presides over the event with fest director Nate Kohn in collaboration with the University of Illinois College of Media.

Such legends as producers Norman Lear and Irwin Winkler; actress Isabelle Huppert; cinematographer Caleb Deschanel; and directors Charles Burnett, Gary Ross and Robert Townsend will be feted by cheering fans at screenings and scholarly panels.

Yet hoopla aside, guests can’t stop talking about another legend: Roger, the man with the big thumbs-up, whose truth goes marching on.

“It was clear how much he loved film,” Lear says. “It’s one thing to criticize, another to criticize out of love. To know his work is to know how much he cared for film and for filmmakers.”

“I think this festival is unique,” says Burnett, whose “To Sleep With Anger” will be projected on the giant screen of Champaign’s restored landmark Virginia Theater. “I can only think of a few festivals that have taken the name of a person who has advanced the art of cinema.”

Townsend, who’ll moderate Burnett’s Q&A, praises Ebert as “a champion of new voices” who “always had an open mind, saying, ‘OK, I’m learning something about a culture,’ whatever the film happened to be.”

“It’s one thing to criticize, another to criticize out of love. To know [Ebert’s] work is to know how much he cared for film and for filmmakers.”
Norman Lear

Huppert echoes that sentiment, lauding Ebert and late partner Gene Siskel as cinephiles primed “to build the bridges between foreign cultures.” Years ago Ebert praised the French star, now bringing Oscar-nominated tour de force “Elle,” for her ability “to betray almost nothing to the camera … as if daring us to guess what she is thinking.”

She’s clearly touched by the quote, and impressed by his acumen. “He understood what I was trying to express in films. It’s very, very accurate. What I feel I do on screen — showing and hiding at the same time — is what the movie medium allows an actor. I do it as much as I can.”

Lear, appearing with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s 2016 biographical documentary, “Just Another Version of You,” takes similar pride in an Ebert bouquet. Calling the critic a “stalwart” who “sought the interior of characters, content and story,” Lear stops short when told his 1971 feature “Cold Turkey” received a four-star review for its “malice and avarice.”

“What a great man!,” he jests. “When I hear that played back so many years later, I love it,” with an artist’s gratitude for kudos to underappreciated work.

The original moniker Overlooked Film Festival reflected Roger’s penchant for “cinema that others didn’t always see the value in,” as Townsend puts it. That spirit remains alive in the programming of Tanya Wexler’s “quietly saucy” (Ebert’s phrase) 2011 Victorian era biopic “Hysteria,” and closing night attraction “De-Lovely,” Irwin Winkler’s commercially disappointing 2004 Cole Porter passion project, admired by the critic for its “worldly sophistication.”

Ebert handed Winkler lumps over the years. “He was always a tough critic, but a good one, and that goes with the territory.” Enthusiasm for his directing debut “Guilty by Suspicion,” and lunches at Cannes events, brought the men closer.

Of “De-Lovely,” Winkler says: “I thought it was so interesting, to deal with the love relationship of a gay man with a woman who basically was not interested in sex at all … and to find a way to do that great music with modern performers.” He relishes the chance to revisit it on a giant screen in a 35mm print before 1,600 people, “rather than somebody sitting alone in their living room, watching it on a small screen. Or on their watch.”

Impeccable projection and sound are a proud hallmark of the festival, per Chaz Ebert. “I hope the guests lose themselves to the characters in the screen, and that they have an immersive experience.” Concentration within the showplace is followed by bonhomie without, as attendees partake of food trucks in the broad plaza, mingle and talk film. “It’s unlike any other festival in the world, and I’ve been to a lot of them.”

Burnett says he simply expects “a good experience … to enjoy myself and to meet filmmakers and other people,” an outcome to which Roger would likely give thumbs up.

Ebertfest might not be the biggest festival in the world, but it carries Ebert’s spirit and dedication and love for movies,” Huppert says. “And that’s so important.”

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